An internet service provider in Stockholm is launching a short wave radio station to broadcast independent news, in Russian, deep into Russia. At the same time, buildings across Sweden have been lit up in yellow and blue, not in honor of the Swedish flag, but in a display of support for the Ukrainian resistance against Russian aggression. Although Swedes are used to draping themselves in the colors of the sun and the ocean, they have historically been less enthusiastic about the navy and white of the NATO flag. That may be changing.
The balance of power in the Swedish parliament means that the decision of whether Sweden will formally apply for NATO membership currently rests with the Social Democratic party, the governing party of Sweden for most of the past hundred years that currently holds the premiership. That the Social Democrats are even debating NATO membership as a realistic option reveals an historic shift in Swedish politics. Since 1992, the cornerstone of Swedish security policy has been the rejection of military alliances in favor of a firm belief in the United Nations and multilateral dialogue to resolve international crises. In the unlikely scenario of an attack by a foreign aggressor, there has long been an assumption that someone else (most likely NATO, in which Sweden participates in through the Partnership for Peace program) would rush to aid the defense of the nation. Ten years ago, the former Supreme Commander of the Swedish Armed Forces, Sverker Göranson, stated that Sweden would be able to defend itself for approximately a week.
The recent assault by Russia on Ukraine appears to have thrown conventional Swedish wisdom aside in favor of a serious debate about NATO membership. Just a few months ago, this would have been unthinkable. Could Sweden actually join a military alliance that, for all intents and purposes, is governed by the United States?
Consider the historical context in which this shift has taken place. Olof Palme, by many revered as one of Sweden’s greatest modern prime ministers, castigated the United States for actions taken during the Vietnam war. He drew parallels between the Hanoi bombings and Babiy Yar, where the Nazis murdered tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust (and where, more recently, the Russian Federation has been accused of targeting missiles). When NATO expanded in the 21st century, then-Prime Minister Göran Persson welcomed the expansion while affirming that NATO membership for Sweden was simply not on the table.
NATO-skeptical sentiments—and more specifically U.S.-skeptical sentiments—have been in step with public opinion. The SOM Institute, a university-affiliated public research center, has posed the question of NATO membership to the Swedish public since 1994. In that year, only 15 percent of Swedes thought that it sounded like a good idea. Around the turn of the century, after the fourth and fifth rounds of NATO enlargement, the share of Swedish support for membership in NATO had seen a slight increase to just over 20 percent. A significant change in public opinion is evident around 2013, the year Russian combat aircraft flew within 100 miles of Stockholm, when almost 30 percent of respondents answered that they thought membership in NATO was a good/very good proposal. In 2014, the Russian annexation of Crimea further increased tensions in Swedish-Russian relations.
In an admittedly fluid situation, recent polling shows that about half of Swedes are now in favor of NATO membership. Although it is difficult to attribute changes in public opinion to specific events, the Russian re-invasion of Ukraine is the only obvious reason for the rapid change in public opinion.
Whether Swedish politicians will opt to join NATO is still very much an open question. The immediate answer was No: In a partial response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Swedish government held a two-hour emergency cabinet meeting in order to discuss Sweden’s approach to foreign and security policy after which they emerged with a statement that amounted to Sweden not changing its posture towards NATO. But that could change if public opinion continues to shift.
There appear to be three, perhaps not mutually exclusive, options receiving serious consideration in Stockholm. The first is NATO membership, which has received significant support from the group of four liberal-conservative parties formerly known as the Alliance. The third-largest party in parliament, the nationalist Sweden Democrats, which traditionally has been viewed as the friendliest to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, has changed its footing and stated that it is prepared to support NATO membership if the situation requires it. On the other side of the political spectrum, it remains to be seen where the Social Democrats end up while the Left Party and the Greens remain committed to Sweden’s traditional policy. The second option is to seek security guarantees and closer cooperation within the existing structures of the European Union. French President Emmanuel Macron and his government have shown ambitions to strengthen Europe on the world stage, which includes closer and stronger ties in the foreign policy and security realms. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Danish government announced that it is set to hold a referendum on June 1 to abolish its defense opt-out from the European Union. Almost simultaneously, the prime minister of Sweden, Magdalena Andersson, and the Finnish prime minister, Sanna Marin, held a summit after which they presented a joint letter to the European Union reminding its members of the responsibility to provide aid if a member were to come under attack.
The third option is to remain neutral, or alliance-free, and to restore the Swedish national defense to a level that would intimidate a potential invader. To partially achieve this goal, the Swedish government has announced its intentions to raise defense spending to 2 percent of GDP. That proportion happens to be in line with what Sweden would have to spend if the country were to join NATO.
Whether Sweden ultimately ends up deciding to apply for NATO membership is also dependent on what its eastern neighbors in Finland arrive at in their upcoming debate over NATO. A Finnish application for membership would almost certainly tip the scales in favor of Sweden submitting one of its own. If the Finns decide against joining, Sweden would probably choose to seek security assurances elsewhere.